The story begins late one stormy night when retired school mistress Martha hears a knock at her front door. Upon opening it she discovers a couple desperate for help for themselves and their new-born daughter. Martha soon realises that the pair, Lynnie and Homan, have escaped from a local residential school for the Incurable and Feebleminded. When the police turn up Homan manages to flee, but Lynnie is captured and just has time to whisper to Martha, ‘Hide her’. Those two words mark the beginning of a whole new life for Martha as she leaves her home with the baby, whom she calls Julia, and vows to do everything in her power to protect her. The novel then follows Lynnie, Homan, Martha and Julia over a period of forty years.
Rachel Simon is best known for her memoir ‘Riding the Bus with My Sister’, in which the author examines her relationship with her mentally challenged sister, as well as delving into civil rights and the effect disability has on siblings.
I found this book completely emotionally draining, so much so that I really had to force myself not to flick forward to the end to discover how things were going to resolve themselves. The scene where Lynnie’s parents left her at the school was particularly heart-breaking.
The author does an amazing job of getting inside her characters’ minds and obviously spent a lot of time ensuring she got their voices just right. It’s truly inspiring that this author is shining a spotlight on the subject of what actually went on in these types of institutions; she doesn’t shy away from revealing what her research, inspired by her own sister’s disability, showed her.
Of the protagonists my favourite was undoubtedly Martha. At an age where she’d retired and was beginning to take things easy, she suddenly finds herself caring for a new born baby, without any experience in how to do so. She has to leave her whole life behind and live literally on the run to look after an almost complete stranger’s child. What she finds hardest is having to lie to everyone around her, but to her Julia is more than worth any sacrifices she makes.
For me, the slightly weaker sections of the story were those focussing on Homan and his struggle to return to Lynnie, although this was purely because the adventures of the other characters had me so enthralled. I did feel that the ending contained a few too many handy coincidences and came around a little quickly, particularly as a bit chunk of time was missed out of the story which I would have liked to have seen included.
A beautifully written novel with a truly life-affirming ending. The story was engrossing and the characterisation brilliant. Simon deals with a very difficult subject superbly, showing a real empathy for both her characters and the real people who experienced first-hand many of the atrocities of care described in this book. I’d be very interested to read more from this author.